With Tuesday’s release of Harper Lee’s long-unpublished “first novel” — “Go Set A Watchman” — attention is almost equally divided between this “new” book and Lee’s great offering to American literature, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Since both books feature the same main characters, setting and themes (Hemingway observed all writers tell just one story no matter how many books they may write), the comparisons were inevitable and Mockingbird has fared the better of the two in those comparisons..
But today I am thinking of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” — rather, one particular passage of it — for quite a different reason.
Here’s the passage:
“Somehow, it was hotter then: A black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
If there is a better description of a Southern summer in American literature, I haven’t stumbled over it.
While it is somewhat dated — men no longer wear stiff colors and mid-morning baths and 3 p.m. naps are something modern women can hardly imagine — Lee otherwise perfectly captures the oppressive quality of Southern summer at its most menacing.
I have had the opportunity to endure two distinctly different types of summer misery — here in Mississippi, of course, and in what is called “The Valley of the Sun” in Arizona, where I lived for 12 years.
I am sometimes asked which is worse. It’s a tough call: Would you rather be boiled (Mississippi) or roasted (Arizona)?
What I have come to find is that where I am is where the summer is most brutal. I will say this for Mississippi, though. The summer has moved on by October. In October, the Arizona summer is just beginning to pack.
In 2010, my last year in Arizona, we had 120 days when the temperate reached at least 100 degrees and 30 days where the temperature eclipsed 110 degrees.
I know what you are going to say about that, of course: “But it’s a dry heat.” So is a barbecue pit.
Mississippi summers are different, not as long, but equally miserable, albeit in a different way. You can almost drown in a Mississippi summer. There are days when I sort of feel like a boiled peanut.
The end result, I have noticed, is everything slows down in the summer.
In April, it takes me about an hour to mow my lawn. In July, it’s a three-hour job. I mow for a half-hour, then go wring myself out and rest for 45 minutes.
The TV weatherman announces the temperature is 94 degrees, then he says — almost gleefully, it seems — it “feels like” 103.
I look at the weatherman. He is young and lean and talking to me from the climate-controlled comfort of a TV studio.
I am 56 years old, carry about 20 extra pounds and have more bad habits than a thrifty nun.
Feels like? The weatherman has no idea. To me, it “feels like” I am a character written into Dante’s “Inferno.”
When I was a little kid, I discovered on a hot summer’s day, you could use a magnifying glass to start a fire. You could also use it to incinerate fire ants, which I considered justifiable homicide and far more fun than burning leaves and grass.
But it is July, and I find that I am not the end of karma, but merely a point in the process. In my youth, I was the hunter, now I am the prey and I squirm under a much larger magnifying glass held by an unseen hand.
I slump into the chair on my front porch, mopping my forehead with a bandanna under the “old man” straw hat I use to protect myself from the menacing sun. I look at the 100 feet of lawn I have managed to mow before being forced to flee to the shade. Pathetic.
Just down the street, a dog is chasing a cat. They are both walking.
It’s hard to be muster much enthusiasm on a day when it “feels like” summer in Mississippi.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.